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Florida Corrections Must Answer to Man Left Blind

(CN) - A man who says inadequate medical treatment in a Florida prison left him permanently blind in one eye may have a civil rights case, the 11th Circuit ruled.

The decision notes that Jeffrey Kuhne was in his mid-40s when Florida incarcerated him for a probation violation in June 2008.

His sight significantly worsened soon after his transfer from intake to the Jackson Correctional Institution, and an optometrist recommended in October that the inmate see a retinal specialist.

Though Kuhne was diagnosed with proliferative diabetic retinopathy, a condition that can lead to permanent blindness if left untreated, he never saw that specialist and was released from the custody in March 2009 with permanent blindness in his left eye.

Kuhne sued the Florida Department of Corrections and various officials for negligence and deliberate indifference under the Eighth Amendment.

A federal judge granted the defendants summary judgment on the constitutional claim, however, based on a form that Kuhne signed on Oct. 28, 2008, refusing the consultation with the retinal specialist. The court also refused to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state-law negligence claim.

Finding that questions remain about the form, and the events that led Kuhne to sign it, a three-judge panel with the 11th Circuit reversed summary judgment Firday.

The 15-page ruling explains that Kuhne signed the refusal form five days after signing an authorization to meet with the retinal specialist.

He claims to have signed the new form after meeting with nurses to request that they "remove certain lifting and walking restrictions." The nurses directed Kuhne to sign a Refusal of Health Care Services Affidavit, which he did.

He claimed to have signed as the nurses demanded because a "prisoner does what he is told or else he goes to solitary confinement."

According to Kuhne's account, the meeting with the nurses lasted no more than two minutes, nobody explained any risks or benefits of signing the refusal form, and nobody said or wrote that he was refusing treatment for his eyes.

An affidavit from the former inmate says Kuhne learned on Oct. 29, the day after that meeting, that the form supposedly contained a refusal pertaining to his eyes, leading him to "adamantly deny refusing an available opthamology appointment."

Someone in utilization management had made Kuhne an appointment on Oct. 29 to meet with the specialist on Nov. 18, but that appointment never transpired, according to the ruling.

For the remainder of his sentence Kuhne allegedly sought help for his deteriorating sight, but was repeatedly confronted with his refusal form.

In denying a "medical grievance" Kuhne filed in February, Dr. Lysette Lagares "merely noted that Mr. Kuhne, on October 28, 2008, had signed a refusal form declining the consulation with the retinal specialist," according to the ruling.

"She did not explain why, even if that were so, Mr. Kuhne could not have changed his mind or why the Department of Corrections could not then get him to an ophthalmologist," Judge Adalberto Jordan wrote for the appellate panel.

Out of prison, an eye specialist managed to restore vision in Kuhne's right eye to 20/40 vision with significant impairments in peripheral vision and depth perception. His left eye remains sightless, however, and Kuhne is thus permanently disabled, according to the ruling.

The Atlanta-based federal appeals court revived Kuhne's case after finding that "a reasonable jury could find that Mr. Kuhne never voluntarily declined, with informed consent, the upcoming consultation with an ophthalmologist for his retinopathy."

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